By Josh Yohe, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Sunday, January 22, 2012
Evgeni Malkin #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins reacts after scoring a goal against Henrik Lundqvist #30 of the New York Rangers during their game on January 19, 2012 at Madison Square Garden in New York City. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
Alex Ovechkin's relationship with Evgeni Malkin has ranged from brotherhood to belligerence, from Olympic roommates to NHL rivals. But the Washington Capitals' falling star has no trouble reaching the consensus these days regarding his Russian countryman.
"He's the top player in the league," Ovechkin said Saturday at Consol Energy Center.
Ovechkin's tone was that of admiration.
"Malkin," he said, "right now dominates."
Almost eight years following one of the most top-heavy drafts in NHL history, the first two players selected are moving in opposite directions. Malkin, chosen No. 2, has jumped into the NHL scoring lead and is a leading candidate for MVP honors. All the while, Ovechkin's star has faded.
"The stats aren't important to me," Malkin said. "I don't worry about that. I just want to win games."
Entering Saturday's games, Malkin led the NHL in scoring and points per game. Ovechkin led the league in no categories -- except theories about his inexplicable descent. His 36 points ranked 43rd in the league, and his points-per-game average is down more than half a point from his career average.
"It does startle me," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "I am surprised that his numbers aren't there."
Bylsma said Ovechkin looks the same on the ice, but maybe that's the problem. Consider defenseman Kris Letang's assessment: "I don't think he's any different. I think that's why his numbers went down a little bit. It's always been the same. Always been the same move, same spots on the ice. I think teams watch him through the years and kind of notice and pay attention to everything that he does."
There also are whispers in Washington that he parties too much and doesn't work out during the summer. Whatever the case, the dynamic efforts that once defined his game are a thing of the past.
Ovechkin, 26, who claimed two Hart Trophies as MVP and an Art Ross Trophy as scoring leader during his first six seasons, hasn't scored more than two points in a game all year. He has two goals and one assist in the past eight games, all of which he played without his regular center, Nicklas Backstrom.
Ovechkin averaged 6.7 shots per game during the 2008-09 season. He is averaging 3.6 this season.
"He's not cheating offensively as much," Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen said. "I think he's playing more of a well-rounded game, and it's taking away from his offense."
Malkin's game has been well rounded, too, but nothing is stopping his ability to score. He has eight goals -- including two game-winners -- and is 2 for 2 in shootouts in his past five games, all victories. He has six third-period goals in his past four games, and highlight-reel tallies have become common.
"We are all spectators," right wing Pascal Dupuis said, "of the 'Geno Show.' "
Even Ovechkin, who roomed with Malkin at the 2006 Olympics before they had a temporary falling out, admitted this is the best he has seen his countryman play.
"I think he's playing great right now," he said. "Last year (when he missed the second half of the season with an ACL tear), he missed hockey a lot."
The hockey world misses Ovechkin, and no one knows when or if his dominance will resurface. Times have changed since 2004 when, the day before the draft, almost every reporter gravitated to the charming Ovechkin. Malkin, who remains shy, essentially was left alone.
He's still alone today -- at the top.
"Watching him right now, he's been so impressive," Penguins center Dustin Jeffrey said. "He sees things out there, does things out there, that no one else can do. He's been unbelievable."
Josh Yohe is a McKeesport Daily News staff writer and can be reached at 412-664-9161, via e-mail or on Twitter.